3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's Who

From rethinking dry cleaning or marketing to flipping the script on pop culture events, here's who to know this week in Houston innovation. Courtesy Photos

This week's batch of Houston innovators to know are all rethinking the way things are being done, from dry cleaning and marketing to pop culture events. Scroll through to see who's who in Houston innovation this week.

Safir Ali, founder and CEO of Hamper

Safir Ali leads Houston-based Hamper, which won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

It's a good week for Safir Ali, who's company just won a startup competition put on by the Houston Rockets and BBVA Compass. Hamper, his company, makes dry cleaning more convenient for customers with pick up and delivery. His parents run a dry cleaning shop and he always thought it was a bit antiquated.

"I had this 'aha' moment in 2016," Safir says. "I had graduated from Texas A&M in 2014 and was working a corporate job and the last thing on my mind was joining the family business. But I started to see all the pain points for people in dry cleaning." Learn more about Hamper here.

Allie Danziger, founder and president of Integrate Agency

When it comes to setting up a marketing budget for your startup, considering every angle is important, says Allie Danziger of Integrate Agency. Getty Images

Allie Danziger has been focused on digital marketing since before it was cool. The entrepreneur created her Houston agency 10 years ago and has been growing ever since. She wrote a guest column for InnovationMap last week about how startups and small businesses should decide on how much to spend on marketing.

"Industry research suggests spending 5 percent to 12 percent of total revenue on an annual marketing budget," she writes. "At Integrate Agency, we believe marketing spend should be determined from key data points, versus current size." Click here to read the rest of the article.

Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president and senior vice president at Houston First

Michael Heckman shares about some exciting new aspects of Houston's 11th annual Comicpalooza. Courtesy of Houston First

It's safe to say that Michael Heckman has had a busy weekend. The 11th annual Comicpalooza took over downtown Houston this past weekend, but just because one event is over, doesn't mean Heckman or his team at Houston First Corp. is slowing down.

"Our convention sales team looks to break another record this year," Heckman tells InnovationMap. "We have a lot of major events upcoming — from the college football playoff to the men's basketball Final Four, and we'll eventually pursue another Super Bowl."

Heckman says he has some big ideas for even an innovation-focused conference. Read the rest of the Q&A with Heckman here.

From the real estate needs of the innovation ecosystem to the most promising OTC startups, here are this week's trending stories. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

What's trending

The annual Offshore Technology Conference has wrapped up, but not before the Rice Alliance named 10 promising startups — most of which have headquarters or operations in Houston. Now, Comicpalooza is taking over for what is expected to be a record year. These stories and more all trended on InnovationMap — here's what else trended.

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Rice Alliance names the 10 most promising startups at Houston's Offshore Technology Conference

Startups from across the world pitched at the Rice Alliance Startup Roundup at the Offshore Technology Conference. Getty Images

Over 50 different startups from across the globe gathered at the Offshore Technology Conference for the fifth annual Rice Alliance Startup Roundup event. The full day of speed pitching and presentations, hosted by Rice Alliance Managing Director Brad Burke, took place at NRG Arena on Monday, May 6.

After interacting with all the various startups, the Rice Alliance's panel of experts voted on the 10 most promising startups. Half of the companies that were recognized are based in Houston — and even more have an office or some sort of operations in town. Here's which technologies the offshore oil and gas industry has its eye on. Read the full story here.

Comicpalooza expects another record year, says Houston First Corp. executive

Michael Heckman shares about some exciting new aspects of Houston's 11th annual Comicpalooza. Courtesy of Houston First

Eleven years ago, Comicpalooza was a small event held out in Katy. Over the past few years, with the help of Houston First Corp., the three-day conference has grown to be so big, the 2019 programming will spill out of George R. Brown Convention Center and into Discovery Green, and attract over 50,000 attendees.

"These comic conventions used to just be for the hardcore pop culture fans. What we've attempted to do is make it so there's something for everyone," says Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president and senior vice president at Houston First. "As a casual pop culture fan, there's a lot to see and do." Read the full story here.

Data Gumbo closes $6M round, Alice partners with accelerator, and more Houston innovation news

Blockchain-as-a-service company closes $6 million Series A round. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been busy, and the ongoing 50th anniversary of the Offshore Technology Conference has claimed a lot of attention in town lately. While I'm sure you've seen the big news pieces, like the Texas Medical Center's new details about TMC3 or WeWork's third Houston location, you may have missed some of these short stories. Read the full story here.

Houston expert shares her advice on how much startups should spend on marketing

When it comes to setting up a marketing budget for your startup, considering every angle is important. Getty Images

Industry research suggests spending 5 percent to 12 percent of total revenue on an annual marketing budget. At Integrate Agency, we believe marketing spend should be determined from key data points, versus current size. We shepherd our clients through a five-step process to calculate how much they should spend on marketing to maximize their ROI. Read the full story here.

Overheard: Panel of experts sums up the Houston innovation ecosystem's real estate needs

Houston's innovation ecosystem development is highly interconnected to the city's real estate industry. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

As the city and multiple entities strive to develop an innovation hub and ecosystem, real estate plays a huge role. Developing the physical space is one of the first steps to attracting companies, talent, and money to the Bayou City.

At Bisnow's annual Houston State of the Market event, five panelists heavily involved in the process of developing Houston's innovation ecosystem weighed in on the real estate needs of innovation development in Houston. Check out these powerful quotes said during the panel. Read the full story here.

Comicpalooza takes place Friday, May 9, to Sunday, May 12. Courtesy of Comicpalooza

Here's what you can expect at Houston's Comicpalooza this weekend from esports to Game of Thrones stars

Bend the knee

People from around the world will be flocking to downtown Houston by the thousands, and not just for the Astros and the Rockets. The 11th annual Comicpalooza is taking over the George R. Brown Convention Center from Friday, May 10, to Sunday, May 12.

"This major super block in downtown will be absolutely electric this weekend," Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president, tells InnovationMap.

Last year, the convention attracted over 50,000 people from 47 states and 17 countries, and it made an economic impact of over $20 million, Heckman says. This year, with the help of Game of Thrones stars and an inaugural ESPN event, Comicpalooza should surpass last year's accomplishments.

Here's what you can expect from this weekend.

A crowd at the panel that has two Game of Thrones actresses

Emilia Clarke (left) plays Daenerys in Game of Thrones, and Nathalie Emmanuel plays her adviser and friend, Missandei. Photos courtesy of Comicpalooza

A panel on Saturday morning at 11 am will have two Game of Thrones stars — Emilia Clarke (Daenerys) and Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei). The panel is sure to attract the masses, and the two actresses are major gets by the organization.

"To be able to get Emilia Clarke in the middle of the final season of Game of Thrones, with only two episodes to go — the hype has been unbelievable," Heckman says. "To be able to have a pop culture phenomenon like that come here to Houston — and it will be her first fan event. She's done the San Diego Comic Con, but that was more of a media event."

Both actresses also have autograph visits available for purchase. Clarke's are sold out online, but some opportunities will be made available day of.

The first ever ESPN collegiate esports competition

ESPN's inaugural esports competition for college students is premiering at Comicpalooza. Jamie McInall/Pexels

For the first time ever, ESPN is having a collegiate esports championship and chose Houston to be the place for the finals.

"We've understood the value of [esports] for Comicpalooza for a number of years. ESPN is making a big investment — it's their first ever event of this nature, but it won't be their last," Heckman says.

Students from hundreds of schools have competed to make it to the semifinals and championship in Houston, and scholarships are on the line. The weekend will have 22 teams across five video games — Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, StarCraft II, and Street Fighter V — according to ESPN. To read more about the competition, click here.

Makers on display

Anyone can check out the Comicpalooza Maker's Space — there's even a place to fix any cosplay wardrobe malfunctions. Photo via comicpalooza.com

Calling all makers — professionals or wannabes. Comicpalooza's Maker's Space is open to cosplayers, artists, engineers, scientists and everyone in between who wants to create and build using old and new technology, from small electrical parts to towering 3D printers and Lego masterpieces.

"What a lot of people don't know is there are so many interesting aspects to Comicpalooza — from literature tracks to a film festival to a makerspace," Heckman says. "There are hundreds of exhibitors on the expo showfloor, but there's an area carved out for makers."

A party on the promenade

Free concert anyone? Photo via comicpalooza.com

From 6 to 10 pm on Saturday, Avenida Houston will be transformed into an after party put on by Saint Arnold's and headlined by Icona Pop. It's free to attend, and you can get more info here.

VIPs all around

It's not just the Game of Thrones people being featured. Photos via comicpalooza.com

Comicpalooza attendees can grab photos with or autographs from over 30 different actors across major franchises — like Star Trek, Walking Dead, and so much more.

The list of actors is as follows: Emilia Clarke, Nathalie Emmanuel, Grant Gustin, Wilmer Valderrama, Dan Fogler, Gates McFadden, Michael Dorn, John Wesley Shipp, Peter Serafinowicz, Griffin Newman, Yara Martinez, Brendan Hines, Scott Speiser, Jeremy Davies, Andrew Divoff, Mira Furlan, Erick Avari and more.

Michael Heckman shares about some exciting new aspects of Houston's 11th annual Comicpalooza. Courtesy of Houston First

Comicpalooza expects another record year, says Houston First Corp. executive

Featured Innovator

Eleven years ago, Comicpalooza was a small event held out in Katy. Over the past few years, with the help of Houston First Corp., the three-day conference has grown to be so big, the 2019 programming will spill out of George R. Brown Convention Center and into Discovery Green, and attract over 50,000 attendees.

"These comic conventions used to just be for the hardcore pop culture fans. What we've attempted to do is make it so there's something for everyone," says Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president and senior vice president at Houston First. "As a casual pop culture fan, there's a lot to see and do."

The festivities take place Friday, May 10, to Sunday, May 12, and include some big name events. Two Game of Thrones stars — Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) and Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei) — will be on a panel, and ESPN will host its first collegiate esports competition.

Heckman tells InnovationMap more about these big events and how Comicpalooza has transformed over the years.

InnovationMap: How the event has grown over the past decade? 

Michael Heckman: We've really worked hard to increase the impact of the event. There's a lot of out of town visitors that do come in — it has north of a $20 million economic impact every year. When you look at an event that is held during a traditionally slow period of time, it's a really big deal for the hotels and restaurants. The other part about it is when you're able to bring big stars to Houston, they're tweeting about it and posting Instagram stories about it. It does a lot to shine a spotlight on Houston's reputation and image.

IM: What are you most excited about for this year?

MH: It's a big sprawling event that takes place across all 1.2 million square feet of GRBCC. I'm excited about a few things. First, we've got the two folks from Game of Thrones. To be able to get Emilia Clarke in the middle of the final season of Game of Thrones, with only two episodes to go — the hype has been unbelievable. To be able to have a pop culture phenomenon like that come here to Houston — and it will be her first fan event. She's done the San Diego Comic Con, but that was more of a media event.

We've also got the ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship held here. We've done esports and gaming over the past few years, but it's a growth area for the event. To be able to hold that event with dozens of championships from around the country for this inaugural event is very exciting.

What a lot of people don't know is there are so many interesting aspects to Comicpalooza — from literature tracks to a film festival to a makerspace. There are hundreds of exhibitors on the expo showfloor, but there's an area carved out for makers. We have NASA, a cultural arts avenue, there's something for everyone. We're really looking forward to a blockbuster year.

IM: What did it mean for Houston to get ESPN’s collegiate esports program? 

MH: Esports is rapidly growing. That marketplace is developing very quickly. A lot of people and a lot of cities are figuring out what that means. We've understood the value of it for Comicpalooza for a number of years. ESPN is making a big investment — it's their first ever event of this nature, but it won't be their last.

IM: How did it come about?

MH: We've been talking to a number of folks across the landscape about how to best utilize the space that we have at GRBCC and find an opportunity that was a good fit for us. A couple people we were talking to out on the West Coast who connected us to the ESPN people, who happen to be the same division of ESPN that partners with the Houston Texans on a couple things. There's some synergies there, and they're familiar with Houston.

IM: How would you describe Comicpalooza's economic impact on Houston?

MH: Around 20 to 30 percent for the audience of Comicpalooza comes from outside of Houston. Last year, we had attendees from 47 states and 17 countries. It gives great exposure to the city, and the money they leave behind is valuable from an economic impact perspective. We think our numbers will be somewhat similar to last year.

If you look at the long term vision of what this could be, we have a beautiful campus for this event. We've moved some of our programming outside GRBCC onto the Avenida Plaza that connects to Discovery Green. If we have a full campus-wide event, that's something that's highly attractive. You grow that attendance, get up to 70 or 80 thousand people — that's a mega event. It's a snowball — once you get it started and then it just takes off. We're not there yet, but we've had really smart growth.

IM: How is the city as a whole preparing for the event?

MH: Houston's really good about handling events. It takes everything from the fire department to the police department and traffic control and 700 event volunteers — over 2,000 shifts. It's such a big footprint — it's kind of all hands on deck. It also looks like we'll have Astros at home and the Rockets playing game six of the playoffs at home. This major super block in downtown will be absolutely electric this weekend.

IM: What other events are you looking to bring to Houston?

MH: We'll always be chasing our conventions we have here. Our convention sales team looks to break another record this year. We have a lot of major events upcoming — from the college football playoff to the men's basketball Final Four, and we'll eventually pursue another Super Bowl. As we look to develop our portfolio of events that we manage here, there's a lot of opportunities here for events centered around innovation. There's a lot of talk around how Houston needs to have a better reputation for innovation. We've got aerospace, medical, oil and gas — what's an event we can create or partner on that could highlight Houston's innovation.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

ESPN's inaugural esports competition for college students is premiering at Comicpalooza. Jamie McInall/Pexels

Houston to host inaugural ESPN collegiate esports competition

Game on

For the first time ever, ESPN is hosting the Collegiate Esports Championship, and it's chosen Houston's 11th annual Comicpalooza to host it on May 10 to May 12 at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

"We are honored ESPN has chosen Houston and Comicpalooza for their inaugural Collegiate Esports Championship," says Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president and senior vice president at Houston First, in a release. "Each year we strive to provide unique experiences for our different pop culture fandoms. Esports is undoubtedly popular and expanding. Teaming up with ESPN to bring the CEC here allows us to engage our audiences in a completely new, exciting way."

Students from hundreds of schools have competed to make it to the semifinals and championship in Houston, and scholarships are on the line. The weekend will have 22 teams across five video games — Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, StarCraft II, and Street Fighter V — according to ESPN.

"As universities continue to grow their esports programs at the varsity, non-varsity and club levels, we're proud to be providing a platform for national exposure and recognition of some of the most talented players in the collegiate space," says John Lasker, vice president of Digital Media Programming for ESPN, in a release. "Through our collaboration with top publishers in the industry, players will be able to showcase their talent in high-level competition on some of the most prominent esports titles."

Attendees and fans have access to the events with a Comicpalooza pass, but can also opt for the conference's Gaming Speed Pass for extra perks like reserved seating, a private lounge, and opportunities to meet the talent. Conference goers can also compete themselves in several different video games, according to the website.

Houston is a growing hub for esports. Mainline, a spin off company of Houston-based sports marketing company FanReact, launched this year to account for the growing presence of esports. Mainline's CEO, Chris Buckner, tells InnovationMap in an interview earlier this year that, especially because of this ESPN competition, other cities have their eyes on Houston for esports.

"I have been personally in contact with every major university in the city and they all are taking esports seriously," Buckner says in an interview. "It's actually a really exciting time for esports in Houston."

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TMC breaks ground on collaborative Houston research center

in the works

A fall 2023 opening is set for a research center under construction at the Texas Medical Center's new TMC3 life science campus.

The 250,000-square-foot TMC3 Collaborative Building will house research initiatives organized by the Texas Medical Center, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas A&M University Health Science Center, and University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Construction began in January.

"The founding institutions behind [this building] are among the world's leading innovators in health and science. Their work at both the bench and bedside saves lives. The entire spirit behind this building reflects a joint investment — both financially and strategically — in lifesaving research, data collaborations, and technologies," William McKeon, president and CEO of Texas Medical Center, says in a September 20 news release.

Located at the heart of the 37-acre TMC3 campus and facing the site's Helix Gardens, the $185.8 million, four-story building is designed to foster collaboration among academic healthcare institutions and industry partners. Within the building, the three academic healthcare partners will create a 43,000-square-foot joint research lab. Furthermore, a 7,000-square-foot, 500-seat atrium will be available for lectures and other activities.

Beyond space shared by TMC3's four founders, 85,000 square feet of lab and office space will be developed for industry partners, and MD Anderson will create a 14,000-square-foot space for strategic initiatives. The building also includes 14,200 square feet that will host TMC's strategic initiatives; Braidwell, a life science-focused investment firm; the TMC Venture fund; and national venture and equity and partners.

"This project represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Houston's academic medical community to collaborate together and with industry to advance our missions and accelerate knowledge and cures," says Dr. Peter WT Pisters, president of MD Anderson.

"By breaking down silos and bringing clinicians and scientists together in this resource-rich location to speed new therapies to market from regenerative medicine and advanced imaging to drug discovery and data sciences, we will have the ability to translate discoveries into preventions and treatments for patients in need," adds Jon Mogford, chief operating officer and senior vice president of Texas A&M Health.

Houston Exponential appoints new executive director and restructures its board

big news

Houston's nonprofit focused on accelerating the growth of the local innovation ecosystem has named its new leader.

Serafina Lalany has been named Houston Exponential's executive director. She has been serving in the position as interim since July when Harvin Moore stepped down. Prior to that, she served as vice president of operations and chief of staff at HX.

"I'm proud to be leading an organization that is focused on elevating Houston's startup strengths on a global scale while helping to make the world of entrepreneurship more accessible, less opaque, and easier to navigate for founders," Lalany says in a news release. "My team and I will be building upon the great deal of momentum that has already been established in this effort, and I look forward to collaborating closely with members of our community and convening board in this next chapter of HX."

According to the release, the organization is also "sharpening its focus and governing structure." HX's current board of directors will transition into a "convening board." In this new structure, Houston innovation leaders will come together to support one another and share advice and opportunities, as well as launch working groups to address emerging tech ecosystem challenges. An executive committee made up of five to seven members will oversee HX's operations and staff. These changes will be in effect on October 1.

"Houston's innovation ecosystem has been on an incredible run over the last four years as evidenced by the tripling of venture capital funding for local startups and the sharp increase in the number of startup development organizations supporting our emerging companies and founders," says HX Chair Barbara Burger, who is the vice president innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures. "Houston Exponential has been a key catalyst for building momentum, and it's important for the organization to adapt to best meet the needs of the maturing ecosystem."

Moving forward, HX will have a strengthened focus on key efforts, like convening a startup development organization roundtable, the VC Immersions program, monthly networking events, and the annual Houston Tech Rodeo.

Additionally, as the organization's new leader, Lalany will spearhead HX's goal for Houston-based startups raising $10 billion in venture capital annually by 2030, per the release.

"Serafina has been a steadfast leader of the HX team, and we believe she is the right person to take the organization through this next chapter in its evolution," Burger says. "I'm excited to see what's next for HX under her guidance."

Houston innovator talks space health and the future of the commercial sector

houston innovators podcast episode 102

Only about 500 humans have made it to space, which, from a research perspective, isn't a large data set. Yet as commercial space exploration continues and more people make it up into space, new opportunities for space health research are being made available.

"If you look at all the people who have gone into space, they've mostly been employees of nations — astronauts from different governments," says James Hury of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're going to start to get people from all different ages and backgrounds."

Hury is the deputy director and chief innovation officer for Houston-based TRISH, and he's focused on identifying space tech and research ahead of the market that has the potential to impact human health in space. From devices that allow astronauts to perform remote health care on themselves to addressing behavioral health challenges, TRISH is supporting the future of space health.

The organization, which is housed out of Baylor College of Medicine and supported by NASA, has a major role to play in the future of space. The Federal Aviation Administration released new space travel regulations that require travelers to contribute something to society. One way to check that box is to collaborate with TRISH on its research.

"If you are willing to go and help participate in experimentation and research endeavors, then you are helping to gain knowledge for all of humankind," Hury says of future space travelers willing to pay tens of millions of dollars to go to space.

TRISH has stood up the first commercial spaceflight medical research program to work with commercial spaceflight crews to bring back crucial research to one database. Called EXPAND — Enhancing eXploration Platforms and Analog Definition — the new collaborative program is meant to address the challenges that humans face on space missions — early detection and treatment of medical conditions, protection from radiation, mental health, team dynamics, and more.

The human aspect of space exploration has always been at the core of Houston's space industry. And this isn't going to change as commercialization within the sector continues.

"I think we'll be Space City forever," Hury says on the show. "We have a whole lot of expertise here that can support this new economy."

He shares more on the future of space health and Houston's role in space exploration on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.